Native Son – October, 2011

A monstrous six-trunked live oak holds court in Waco’s First Street Cemetery. All photos by Steven Chamblee.

Road Trip to Waco

Sunrise out the truck window.

I watch the sun rise while driving down to Waco for the ISA Conference. The International Society of Arboriculture is an interesting recipe of tree people: arborists, foresters, educators, businessmen, and climbers, with a few horticulturists tossed into the mix for flavor. Without a doubt, the rock stars of the event are the climbers. You can recognize them without introduction: small frame of solid sinew and muscle, not a single ounce of fat, a swagger as bold as a bull-rider, and a unique facial expression that can only be described as a hybrid of Mr. Natural, Mother Earth Incarnate, and Evel Knievel. They don’t make the most money, but this is one arena where the working men outshine their bosses by just standing there … and I think that’s pretty cool.

One climber seems particularly intriguing — like this is someone I should know. My intuition is correct, for it turns out this guy is the guy — the legendary arborist Guy LeBlanc. Guy is the owner of Arbor Vitae Tree Care in Austin, and first became a blip on my radar during the 1989 Treaty Oak crisis, when he played a role in saving the tree. Since then, he has become something of an icon in the Texas tree trade, utilizing his 30-plus years of experience to teach others about tree health, proper pruning methods, worker safety, and aerial rescue. When I ask him for a quick moment, so I can impart to Sperry readers on his behalf, he says, “Too many people are removing too much [biomass] from our urban forests. This is harming our forests, and is perhaps driven by people [customers] wanting a lot [of pruning] for their money.” He pauses for a moment as I write his quote, and changes directions: “Species diversity is critical. The forest in Austin is about 60 percent live oak, and that’s why oak wilt hurt us so bad.” He nods, gives me a quick handshake, and heads off into the crowd. His focused, determined look reminds me of Dallas’ Steve Houser, an arborilogical icon in his own right. Why am I suddenly thinking of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Johnson?

A majestic live oak frames the Mayborn Museum.

One of the “perfect” live oaks on the Baylor University campus.

Chains and cables and scars in a live oak tree.

The evening finds me strolling among the massive live oaks at the Mayborn Museum, on the northwestern fringe of the Baylor University campus. After a full day of tree lectures, my brain is a slow-boiling Mulligan stew of facts, theories, and personal observations. I decide to take the time to truly examine some “perfect specimen” live oaks, to see if I’ve learned anything. From 100 feet away, they appear powerful, majestic, and flawless. From 10 feet, I can see a lot of problems … an elliptical wound (from a flush cut), ground level decay (probably from mower injury), and a bark rimple (natural branching imperfection). Another tree has a rusty chain hanging from it, strange horizontal wounds across several branches, and a nearby cupped branch union holds enough fallen debris and moisture for a small sugar hackberry to grow vigorously within it, 15 feet above the ground. And that tree over there … sudden as a wind shift, my mind is overtaken by the spirit of the trees. These scars, these problems, these imperfections do not undermine the real beauty and majesty of the trees; they just testify to the trees’ history. The list of defects reminds me that all trees and all people, even great trees and great people, have imperfections. It hurts me to think how sometimes we see only the flaws in our fellow humans. It’s so easy to criticize, to proudly point out others’ problems, shortcomings, imperfections. I have been the victim of it, and, as much as it shames me to admit it, I have played the critic. I suppose we all have at some time. Perhaps these trees are speaking to me now to teach me that we all need to learn to love the imperfect being, tree, person … there simply is no other kind.


A magnificent stone floral arrangement in the First Street Cemetery.

An hour later, a massive, six-trunked live oak with a 70-foot spread attracts my attention at the beautiful First Street Cemetery. Hmmm … I wonder if it grew from a cluster of acorns that fell together, or if it divided from a single seed. I approach it in hopes of gathering acorns to plant elsewhere, but there are none beneath its colossal canopy … not this year. Looking straight up, I am quickly enraptured by its grandeur; it erupts from the ground and cascades over like a frozen explosion. Within seconds, my imagination again ponders the similarities of trees and people. We have no choice in our birth or our birthplace. Some get only a few hours to live; some go on for a century. Some struggle to survive; others are blessed with an easy existence. Broken and scarred or cosmetically whole, people and trees both hold our true histories hidden inside us, in memories and growth rings. And, with time, we all return to the earth to make way for the next generation. I imagine a group of mourning people, gathered on this very spot some 150 years ago to bury a loved one … did this tree speak to them as well?


Steven meets the welcoming committee at the Carleen Bright Arboretum.

Blackfoot daisy spills onto the sidewalk at the Carleen Bright Arboretum.

Two days of anatomy, chemistry, physiology, pathology, and safety lessons later, I stop in at the Carleen Bright Arboretum on my way out of town. I love this little place; it always makes me feel like it’s my garden. Sure enough, I get a warm welcome, some good laughs, and a newspaper hat out of the deal. Wandering the garden, I encounter one of my favorite perennials, blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum). This drought-tolerant, little white-flowered wonder is native to calcareous soils southwest of the Metroplex, where it grows to about a foot tall and 18 inches wide. Years ago, I inadvertently killed the first dozen or so that I put in my garden, and grew frustrated. I had placed them at the bottom of a small slope so they could gently spill out onto the sidewalk, in hopes they would cause passers-by to gaze in wonder at my brilliant design intent. Instead, folks were gazing upon a patch of dead plants. I was doing some hand-watering one morning, when a lady stopped by long enough to look at the dead daisies, then up at me. She raised her hands up and shouted, “For Pete’s sake, Sonny … gravity!” It took a while for the full meaning of that word to penetrate my skull, and she was already around the corner by the time I figured it out. I planted my next batch of blackfoot daisies at the top of the slope (better drainage), where they lived happily. (And by the way, these were not named for the Blackfoot tribe of Native Americans. Each ray flower is subtended by a tiny, foot-shaped bract that turns black upon maturity.)

Limestone becomes sculpture at the ranch gate.

Snow on the Mountain bracts are striped green and white.

My ride across the Lake Waco bridge turned into a special event when a bald eagle flew from its perch atop a snag at water’s edge. At first, I thought I must be seeing things, but there it was! A few miles later, I passed my favorite ranch gate, constructed of serpentine limestone walls that gracefully rise and curl into a sharp spiral…. I wonder if a coiled rattlesnake wasn’t the inspiration for its design. In a field just south of Granbury, a few dozen green and white-striped Snow on the Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) decorate piles of dumped topsoil. A few of the plants top 7 feet, the largest I’ve ever seen. Kin to the Christmas poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), it has a similar tiny, round, almost unnoticeable flower. Like the poinsettia, the large, colorful bracts subtending the actual flower get all the attention. This Texas native seems to thrive on disturbed sites, such as landfill areas, new bar ditches, and the edges of low water stock tanks.

Gayfeather meadow ends at the imperfect live oaks.

Pulling into Weatherford, I am greeted by a meadow full of gayfeather (Liatris mucronata). Hundreds of 18-inch tall spikes from this colony of purple-flowered perennials poke up cheerily from underground storage stems called corms. High-quality nectar makes this a favorite of autumn butterflies, including the migrating Monarchs headed for Mexico. I can see a few of them starting to roost in the live oaks … those big, beautiful, shade-giving, squirrel-feeding, bird-nesting, Monarch-roosting, imperfect live oaks.

About the author: Steven Chamblee is the chief horticulturist for Chandor Gardens in Weatherford and a regular contributor to Neil Sperry’s GARDENS magazine and e-gardens newsletter. Steven adds these notes:

Revel in the beauty of Autumn at Chandor Gardens! The ornamental grasses are billowing, the roses are blooming, the sages are sizzling, and the Encore azalea collection is starting the fall bloom. Just take I-20 west to exit 409, hang a right, go 2.1 miles and hang a left on Lee Avenue. Head straight 12 blocks and you’re driving in the gates. Call 817-361-1700 for more information. You can always go to for a picture tour and details.

I can always use another road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come out and speak to your group sometime. I’m low-maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town to small. Just send me an e-mail at and we’ll work something out.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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